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Topical Questions

Volume 485: debated on Tuesday 16 December 2008

The responsibilities of my Department embrace the whole range of NHS social care, mental health and public health service delivery, all of which are of equal importance.

May I congratulate the Department on its foresight in supporting the local campaign to reuse the Standish hospital site in my constituency? It would appear that in January we are to get the good news that the site will be transferred back to the PCT, and we look forward to the development of a fully integrated care setting there. There have been two obstacles to the campaign’s progress: my hon. Friend the Minister will know about the security issues with the site, but I am pleased to say that the listing of block C seems to have been sorted out. Will he ensure that this wonderful proposal sees the light of day, and will he give every support to the PCT so that it can see it through?

Yes, and let me commend my hon. Friend for his active interest in this matter. He is right to point out that the two remaining blockages to progress have been removed: the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has decided not to list block C—having visited the site with my hon. Friend, I believe that that is a very sensible decision. In addition, problems to do with security and vandalism have been sorted out, and I look forward to an announcement that he will be pleased with being made in January.

I recently chaired a seminar on Lyme disease in Westminster Hall, and two things became clear—that diagnoses of people suffering from Lyme disease are on the increase, and that sufferers are beginning to encounter the same scepticism that people with other chronic fatigue syndromes such as ME have been subject to. Will the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen), address that matter? What instructions can she give to GPs to ensure that they treat more seriously the symptoms of long-term sufferers from Lyme disease?

May I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the work that he is doing on Lyme disease, and indeed other hon. Members who have shown an interest in that relatively new disease? Guidance on the diagnosis and treatment of Lyme disease is provided to general practitioners and other clinicians by the Health Protection Agency and is published on its website.

T6. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be aware that more than 90 million working days are lost in Britain every year through mental health issues such as stress, anxiety and depression. Many employers do not quite know what to do about mental health problems, so may I invite him to look at the innovative work being developed by the Cheshire and Wirral Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, together with local employers across Cheshire and the Wirral, which is having significant results? In particular, I point out the partnership between the trust and Airbus; their work has resulted in a 20 per cent. reduction in staff absences at Airbus. (243661)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing to my attention, and the attention of the House, the excellent work done by Cheshire and the Wirral, and the scheme involving Airbus, which she identified as working very well. She is quite right; there are issues to do with mental health and employment that need to be addressed. She will know that we launched a consultation on the subject earlier this year, and a report on the issue is due in the spring. Dame Carol Black is chairing a steering group that is looking into how mental health provision can be better tailored and integrated to help people to find, stay in or return to work. I will certainly draw to the steering group’s attention the excellent work that my hon. Friend describes in her constituency.

T2. Will the Secretary of State agree to take an urgent look at the perverse effects of the NHS’s so-called choose and book system, which my constituents think should be renamed confuse and book? My local primary care trust is so fed up that it now routinely explains to my constituents that the system is nothing to do with it. It is certainly nothing to do with general practitioners, who often end up making the bookings on behalf of my bemused constituents, who cannot work their way through the system. Choose and book is certainly not helping my constituents, the overwhelming majority of whom would rather go to the local district hospital, Stepping Hill, than have what often turn out to be illusory offers of treatment elsewhere. Do Ministers accept that choose and book is putting at least three extra leaps between the consultant and the patient, and that the matter needs to be tackled urgently? (243657)

Order. If the hon. Gentleman ever wishes to apply for an Adjournment debate, I guarantee that he will get one, but I need questions to be brief.

No, we do not accept what the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) says. I am afraid that it is the responsibility of his local primary care trust and GPs to manage the system efficiently and competently, as most primary care trusts and GPs across the country do, to the great benefit of their patients.

Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State confirm that the introduction of GP-led health centres will improve access to GP and primary care services, 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and that such health centres do not threaten well-run, easily accessible village surgeries?

I shall be very pleased to confirm that. Indeed, Bradford—not too far from my right hon. Friend’s constituency—had the very first GP-led health centre, which I opened on 28 November. There, we found that people can drop in at any time. They are guaranteed not to wait more than half an hour, even if they have not got an appointment. The contract was given to a fabulous social enterprise formed by GPs in the area who are doing excellent work throughout Yorkshire. Such health centres are about improving access and increasing the capacity of primary care, so it remains totally mystifying why the Conservative party opposes those new services.

T3. Is the Secretary of State aware that there has been a very serious outbreak of norovirus at the Queen Elizabeth hospital in King’s Lynn? Wards have been closed and all non-urgent operations have been cancelled. Obviously, the problem comes at a bad time for the hospital, as it is trying to pay off its historical debt. The problem could well have an impact on waiting lists and affect the hospital’s finances. What advice could and does the Secretary of State give to hospitals in that position? (243658)

Hospitals should know what to do in that position. This is not a new problem—as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, it happens regularly at this time of year—and our latest understanding from the Health Protection Agency is that it is less bad this year than in previous years. However, it is important that hospitals take swift and immediate action and it is important, too, that people, not least hon. Members in the House, should not spread undue alarm by, for example, comparing this to health care-associated infections, the implications of which can be fatal.

T7. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the incidence of health care-acquired infections such as MRSA and C. difficile is down in 2008? Does he agree that at this time of welcome reductions it is all the more vital that all parts of the NHS remain focused on maintaining those clinical practices, standards of cleanliness and public education to drive out those infections completely? (243662)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have halved MRSA bloodstream infections across England, hitting our target, and we are making excellent progress towards the 2010-11 target to reduce C. difficile infections by 30 per cent. However, we must continue to drive that forward and drive home the message, not just with health professionals but with the public at large, and I am extremely happy that all our people are working all the time to make sure that that happens.

T4. Will the Minister explain to my constituents in Romford and the London borough of Havering why the operating framework from the Department of Health for 2009-10 does not give priority to the health and well-being of our increasing ageing population? (243659)

The operating framework that we issued this year has been well received in the NHS. We have ensured that instead of trying to prioritise everything, and thus prioritising nothing, we have focused attention on health care acquired-infections, which are a huge issue for older people, particularly the over-65s; on dementia; and on greater patient involvement. Those priorities all apply to older people. The dementia strategy, which we will shortly publish, is of particular benefit to older people, as is the debate on the reform of adult social care which, although not restricted to the over-65s, is very much the focus of that report.

T5. It would be churlish to allow 2008 to close without thanking the Secretary of State for accepting in full the recommendations of the independent reconfiguration panel regarding Horton general hospital, and a lot of work has been done to try to balance accessibility issues and safety. May I trespass on the seasonal mood of good will to point out that the Leader of the Opposition, the shadow Secretary of State for Health and at least three members of the shadow health team all visited Horton general hospital in 2008? May I invite the Secretary of State or one of his team to come to visit the Horton general hospital in Banbury at some stage in 2009, so that when he considers these issues he can visualise the balance that we are trying to strike? (243660)

Order. Once again, in topical questions, questions should be brief, not long. Short and sharp—that is the idea.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. What happened with Horton hospital was verification of the process, and the independent reconfiguration panel made those decisions on the basis of the clinical argument. I should be glad to visit the hospital, but I do not believe that I have ever received an invitation. Usually, I depend on an invitation before I pop up, so it would be nice to receive one.

T8. Can the healthy schools programme be revised, so that medicine policies and support systems for children with diabetes and other long-term conditions are taken fully into account? (243663)

We are committed to improving diabetes care for children and young people, including the way in which the condition is managed in schools. The national clinical directors for children and for diabetes are working together to look at how to support the NHS to improve the way it cares for children with diabetes and other long-term conditions.

The Secretary of State will know that the NHS Information Centre provided to 10 Downing street information from hospitals about people presenting with knife wounds—data that were unpublished, not yet validated and incomplete. That was done on the basis that the information would not be used publicly in that form. Can the Secretary of State tell the House whether he knew about 10 Downing street’s intention to use those data and, whether he did or not, what steps he personally is taking to make sure that NHS data are not used for partisan purposes in that way?

I have nothing to add to the Home Secretary’s comments yesterday, particularly her apology for what happened. The hon. Gentleman has written to the Information Centre and made a number of points, all of which will be answered in due course.

T10. Are my right hon. and hon. Friends aware of the campaign by thalidomide survivors, who make the point that that increasingly elderly population who were victims of a great tragedy many years ago are now beginning to suffer the ill-health effects of ageing? How do the Government intend to respond to their aspiration for proper recognition of their plight? (243665)

There is, of course, huge sympathy across the House for individuals and families affected by thalidomide. My hon. Friend will know that a private compensation settlement was arranged many years ago—this is the 50th year, I think, since the tragedy occurred. In addition to the annual payments to victims, those affected by thalidomide will continue to benefit from ongoing improvements to health and social care in the circumstances that he describes, particularly the developments that we are introducing to help people with disabilities to get better social care. There have been substantial increases in the level of funding provided for health and social care services in recent years, and thalidomide survivors and their families will benefit from those services over the years ahead.

T9. Figures given to me by the Minister in a written answer show that alcohol-related finished admissions to hospital in Bexley have increased by more than 70 per cent. since 2002. Does that not show that Government policies on tackling the public health problems caused by alcohol are not working, and why we need our vital accident and emergency hospital department at Queen Mary’s in Sidcup? (243664)

On the hon. Gentleman’s final point, I understand that the independent reconfiguration panel is considering the matter. On alcohol issues, the hon. Gentleman makes a serious point. The number of admissions as a result of alcohol is increasing. If one looks at the reduction in premature deaths from heart disease, cancer and cardiovascular disease against the increasing trend in diseases caused by too much alcohol, one realises there is a very real public message to get across. That is one of the reasons why, the week before last, the Home Secretary announced that she was taking measures to ban the promotions that lead to a large consumption of alcohol in a very short time such as “women drink free” and happy hours on which there will be restrictions. We need to look much more closely at how we introduce other public health messages so that people are aware that consuming too much alcohol is a real and dangerous health risk.